MANILA, Philippines?The diner beside me asked if I had tasted the Bicol Express. I told her I didn?t see any on the buffet table. She pointed to my dish at what looked like binagoongang baboy, pork cooked in shrimp paste. I had always thought that Bicol Express should have more green finger chili (siling haba) than pork. That?s why it?s called gulay na lada, literally, chili vegetable.
Emma Cabanela, head cook at the Bicol foodfest at InterContinental Manila, said that?s how Bicol Express is cooked, at least in Daet, Camarines Norte, where she comes from. Together with her were Maria Quintela Pacao, who is with the Rural Improvement Club, and Albert Carillo, a culinary student training under Cabanela. Glad to know that the young man knows the value of his hometown cooking in his future career as Filipino chef.
Bicol Express is how the dish has been branded. It identifies the province it comes from and connects to the rail transport that plies between Bicol and Manila. Cabanela also said that they don?t cook the dish as hot as that of Camarines Sur. The flavoring ingredient is balao or bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp) which is pounded.
There was laing that day and the Daet version was more dry since the liters of coconut cream are reduced during the cooking. It had its ample share of green finger chili and red bird?s eye chili (labuyo). In Bicol, it?s known as guinataang natong or gulay na natong.
We went through the list of dishes they were to cook until the end of May, a seven-day menu list. We expressed surprise at the kinunot na pating. Cabanela clarified that those are small sharks that can be found in any Bicol market. It?s shredded and then cooked in coconut milk.
It would be unthinkable if tinumok and pinangat aren?t part of the menu. Both are familiar dishes although Bicolanos will tell you that even though the two look similar because both are packets of gabi (taro) leaves cooked in coconut cream, they differ in content.
Cabanela said the tinumok has chopped river shrimps and strips of young coconut while pinangat has chopped pork or smoked fish. I asked a Bicolana friend to give me a recipe of tinumok and she said that it?s too much work just thinking about it. I?m still waiting for the recipe.
How different is their fish escabeche? While it?s the same sweet and sour lapu-lapu that we know, the Daet version has grated green chili with a sauce of pineapple juice and a little soy sauce.
Pineapple is a produce Daet is proud of. Some fruits were given away that day for guests to bring home. It reminded me of Ormoc?s Queen pineapple, small and sweet where even the core can be eaten. I suppose this is another opportunity for Daet to brand its pineapple.
Included in the menu was a dish called pork pineapple cordon bleu, a very un-Bicol dish. Apparently, the dish won for the Daet team of cooks at the recent Women?s Month Cookfest in the province. So they thought it appropriate to present it.
Two items that also didn?t seem to belong were pata tim and gingered fish, both Chinese dishes. The fish included oyster sauce among its flavorings. I suppose it just brings home the fact that many Chinese dishes are now a part of our cooking.
Two items on the last day caught my eye. One was chicken sinanglay. I was told that the grated coconut had a smoky quality because of the toasting done in charcoal just before squeezing to get the coconut cream.
The sinanglay reminded me of the kulawo I had seen made in Quezon. The same roasting of grated coconut is done, then the coco milk mixed in with vinegar served as the dressing for the blanched sliced banana heart.
Both provinces have the same dishes because Camarines Norte shares its boundary with Quezon province. The sinantol is one example. That?s made of grated santol flesh cooked in coconut milk. The added flavor for Daet is smoked fish or tinapa.
The cooks were amused when I told them that in Quezon, the added ingredient will depend on how much money the family has on the day they do the sinantol. If they feel rich, then it will be crabs. In a pinch, nothing is added at all.
The ?Bicol Harvest Food Festival? is ongoing at Café Jeepney until May 31.
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